ALBUM REVIEW: Caroline Shaw’s ‘Orange’

Caroline Shaw. Photo by Kait Moreno.

It’s not often that we stop for a while to enjoy the simpler things in life: a juicy orange, for example, or a Haydn String Quartet. For composer, violinist, and vocalist Caroline Shaw, these moments taken to stop and reflect are important sources of inspiration. Even a sparse, elegant image of an orange can turn into “a celebration of the simple, immediate, unadorned beauty of a natural, every day, familiar thing.”

On her collaborative album with the Attacca Quartet, Orange, Shaw invites us to pause for a bit of thought about the familiar forms of both plants and string quartets, resulting in an album that is as vibrant and colorful as any garden.

Best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning composition Partita for 8 Voices, Shaw is something of a musical polymath: as a vocalist in Roomful of Teeth, violinist with the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, award-winning composer, and wide-ranging collaborator, Shaw has proven herself to be an artist and musician who is wonderfully difficult to pin down.

This is certainly the case in her newest album collaboration, which consists of six works for string quartet written over roughly the past ten years. Here, you can find much of the same deconstruction of classical forms found in her Partita for 8 Voices, but using a musical language tailored to the quirks and traditions of the string quartet.

The album begins with Entr’acte, a warping extension of the traditional minuet and trio form. After opening with dramatically swelling and pulsing chords, the music seems to wind its way into some more unfamiliar territory, eventually growing to include harmonics, unpitched brushing of the bow, and pizzicato. Throughout, Shaw continues to weave in and deconstruct more traditional sequences, harmonies, and chord progressions in fresh and sometimes startling ways.

Rather than a classical form, the next piece celebrates the form of the humble Valencia orange. Bright, arpeggiated harmonics and pizzicato open Valencia, but the music quickly loses stability as glissandos and powerful chordal swells are added to the texture. Shaw describes her use of “somewhat viscous chords and melodies” in this brief work, which could find parallels in the bold tanginess of an orange’s taste. At its core, though, it is a celebration of the rounded, brightly colored curves of this simple and abundant food.

The longest piece on the album, Plan and Elevation (The Grounds of Dumbarton Oaks), is a five-movement meditation on a different natural landscape: the sprawling garden at Dumbarton Oaks, where Shaw spent time as a musician in residence. Here, Shaw draws inspiration from fixtures of the estate, such as a stately beech tree or the sunlit orangery. In the second movement, Shaw quotes passages from classic quartet repertoire, such as Ravel and Mozart, cutting out and reinterpreting this older material alongside segments of her own work much like you might arrange a bouquet of flowers. The final movement begins with strummed chords in the cello and chirping, high-pitched pizzicatos from the violins before growing to include dramatic sustained harmonies. Eventually, the rest of the quartet fades away to leave a violinist quietly strumming the same contemplative chords, like a bird singing at twilight.

Attacca Quartet.

In the next three pieces, Shaw continues to find inspiration in classic forms and music of the past. Punctum, which Shaw calls “an exercise in nostalgia,” is a winding, sequence-filled exploration of what happens when classical techniques and harmonic progressions are used in a fragmented, non-classical way. Her 16-minute string quartet Ritornello 2.sq.2.j.a deconstructs the classical ritornello form, in which a musical idea continues to return with little digressions in between. In Shaw’s reimagining, a simple musical idea begins the piece before being warped and spun through passages featuring the Attacca Quartet playing wild, fluttering harmonics and glissandos, striking the string with the wood of the bow, and droning on powerful, open chords.

Limestone and Felt finishes off the album by drawing inspiration from both the warm resonance and cold stone features of a cavernous gothic chapel, making for a piece that is by turns percussive and plucky or resonant and contemplative.

Much like the rest of Shaw’s wide-ranging work as a musician, Orange draws on a variety of techniques, traditions, and forms. Certain themes, though, continue to inspire and tie these pieces together, such as the order, simplicity, and beauty of nature or the forms and ideals of our musical traditions. On Orange, Shaw and the Attacca Quartet find elegance and charm in both the humble orange and the well-loved music of the past, inviting us to discover something new amid the familiar.

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their weekly playlist. Tune in on Friday, September 7 to hear these pieces and plenty of other new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre!

Dawn of Midi: “Ymir” (Thirsty Ear)

This is one of my new favorite things. As literally every reviewer ever has noted, the ensemble Dawn of Midi is comprised of the same arrangement as any traditional jazz trio (drum kit, grand piano, and upright bass), but the way they use their instruments is more in line with the connotations of the ensemble’s name. This music sounds closer to Tycho, “15 Step” by Radiohead, or the minimal aspects of Aphex Twin than it does to any jazz you’ve ever heard. It’s a tight, taught, surely-not-made-by humans kind of sound, with rhythms set in cool, precise geometric shapes for your ears. And it kinda makes me want to dance. Or at least to try to. – Dacia Clay

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 2pm hour today to hear this piece.


Meredith Monk: Dolmen Music (ECM Records)
Meredith Monk, Julius Eastman, Andrea Goodman, Robert Een, Monica Solem, & Paul Langland, voices

Meredith Monk has secured a place in history as one of the most singular voices of the 20th and 21st centuries. For nearly six decades, she has redefined and revolutionized contemporary vocal music and performance, seamlessly weaving in elements of theatre and dance to create visceral musical experiences that transcend the confines of the classical tradition.

Her 20-minute masterwork Dolmen Music is an iconic example of her ability to merge ancient and modern musical ideas. In this piece, abstract vocalizations, primal rhythms, hypnotic dances, and ritualistic soundscapes come together in an intimate embrace of the human experience. – Maggie Molloy

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 4pm hour today to hear this piece.


Caroline Shaw: “Really Craft When You” (Cantaloupe Music)
Bang on a Can All-Stars

Caroline Shaw’s “Really Craft When You” is best described as a sonic quilt. It’s a chamber piece that stitches together vibrantly textured patches of chamber music with recorded interviews of quilters from North Carolina and Virginia in the 1970s. The result is a cheeky and heartfelt patchwork of found sounds and sonic squares expertly colored by the Bang on a Can All-Stars—and as it turns out, the quilters offer some pretty good musical advice too. – Maggie Molloy

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 7pm hour today to hear this piece.

ALBUM REVIEW: The Hands Free

by Gabriela Tedeschi

Over the course of the past decade, the four composer-performers who make up the Hands Free have performed together in a variety of contexts. They found that what they loved doing the most was holding informal late-night jam sessions—which is what led to the quartet’s inception.

James Moore, who plays guitar and banjo for the group, became interested in a 1937 book that combines the poetry of  Paul Eluard with Man Ray’s line drawings. It’s called Les Mains Libres (Hands Free), a phrase Eluard and Ray used to describe allowing the imagination to play freely. Inspired to make music based on this concept, Moore thought of his late-night jams and invited Pulitzer Prize-winning Caroline Shaw (violin), Nathan Koci (accordion), and Eleonore Oppenheim (bass) to join him for imaginative musical play, creating The Hands Free and their debut self-titled album, out now on New Amsterdam Records.

The ensemble likes to perform unamplified, sit in a circle, and incorporate improvisation in almost every piece so performance feels like play and the sound is especially organic. For The Hands Free, they’ve also worked to integrate a mix of genres from folk music to jazz while drawing from the contemporary classical scene as well.

By making use of the cultural associations of genres and instrument colors, The Hands Free transports you to different parts of the world. Drawing themes from folk songs, the lively violin melody in “Kellam’s Reel/Rusty Gully” takes you to the Scottish countryside for a jovial dance. The gentle, romantic melody in “Lirr Bleu” conjures up images of Paris. With its bittersweet quality and the bass’s soft, melancholy countermelody, the piece seems to depict a broken heart in the City of Love.

In other pieces, The Hands Free challenges your perception of instruments and genres by combining them in new ways. “Lost Halo” begins with a banjo pattern that evokes the stereotypical twang of rural folk music—but when the violin enters with legato melodic lines, the banjo becomes more versatile than we often imagine it to be, intermixing tender consonant chords with dark, suspenseful dissonance for a surprisingly modern sound.

“Sade” almost sounds as though it could be from a horror movie soundtrack, with unpredictable percussion and blares of sound leading the piece into a creepy folk melody variation. Eerie tone clusters form as accordion slides clash against the rest of the ensemble. Alternately, in “It’s She” the violin transitions from another Scottish jig into a rich, lyrical melody. Beneath the violin quick, quiet bursts of tone and soft melodic humming add depth to the texture, creating something hopeful and grandiose.

With its complexity and variety, The Hands Free takes you on a journey around the world while maintaining the warmth and spontaneity of an impromptu jam session. With their beautifully eclectic mix of sounds that depict an immense variety of places and emotions, the quartet invites you to join in their play and let your imagination run free.

Second Inversion’s Top 10 Albums of 2017

From Icelandic sound sculptures to pan-global jazz, found sounds and field recordings to sprawling, city-wide operas, 2017 was filled with some pretty incredible new music. As this year draws to a close, our Second Inversion hosts take a look back at our Top 10 Albums of 2017:

The Industry and wild Up: Hopscotch (The Industry Records)
Release Date: January 13, 2017

Hopscotch is by far the most inventive, labor-intensive, and meticulously designed work of the year. Live performances of the opera take place in 24 cars on three distinct routes, stopping at various locations-turned-performance spaces throughout Los Angeles. It involves everything from animated sequences exploring themes of identity and community to hearing star musicians perform in the car with you as you ride to your next unknown destination. The album recording is just as expansive, inviting the listener to experience the musical narrative in a non-chronological order, with multiple singers forming a composite of each character’s identity.

Intentionally disorienting, surprising, and overwhelming, artistic director Yuval Sharon and his team at the Industry have created an absolutely immersive experience—and audiences have been blown away. – Brendan Howe


yMusic and Son Lux: First (Communal Table Records)
Release Date: February 17, 2017

Something I hear frequently said about new classical music, from detractors and fans alike, is that it’s hard to listen to. First is a decidedly “new classical” album that does not fit into that framework at all. It’s—and I say this without irony—a freaking delight to listen to. It’s full of stories; for example, in the titular track, the instruments seem to be vying for first place until this looming bass note kicks in, threatening to take them all down. The titles themselves kickstart the imagination: “Trust in Clocks,” “Memory Wound,” and “I Woke Up in the Forest” are some of my favorites. Composer Ryan “Son Lux” Lott and producer Thomas Bartlett took yMusic’s edict to make a chamber music record structured like a rock album to heart and, with the addition of amazing performances by the group, turned it into art. – Dacia Clay


American Contemporary Music Ensemble: Thrive on Routine (Sono Luminus)
Release Date: February 24, 2017

Thrive on Routine was an interesting choice of title for ACME’s 2017 release. Timo Andres’ programmatic string quartet that follows the potato-tending and Bach-playing morning routine of Charles Ives thus becomes the album’s centerpiece, and by relation the rest of the selections are colored by the idea of beauty arising from the mundane. Minimalist textures in Caleb Burhans’ “Jahrzeit” and John Luther Adams’ “In a Treeless Place, Only Snow” provide a sense of calm and even pacing, while a deliberate, almost “learned” style extends from Andres’ title track to Caroline Shaw’s “in manus tuas” and “Gustave Le Gray” for solo cello. – Geoffrey Larson


Iceland Symphony Orchestra: Recurrence (Sono Luminus)
Release Date: April 7, 2017

The massive, slow-moving sound sculptures of Iceland shimmer and sparkle in Recurrence, an album of ethereal orchestral works by five emerging and established Icelandic artists. Daníel Bjarnason leads the Iceland Symphony Orchestra through a luminous program ranging from Thurídur Jónsdóttir’s kaleidoscopic “Flow & Fusion,” to María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir’s oceanic “Aequora,” Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s icy and iridescent “Dreaming,” and more. Each piece on the album is a gorgeously abstracted soundscape in itself, showcasing the small Nordic island’s all but unparalleled explorations of texture, timbre, and immersive, atmospheric colors in music. – Maggie Molloy


PRISM Quartet with So Percussion and Partch: Color Theory (Naxos)
Release Date: April 14, 2017

Mixing colors takes on new meaning in Color Theory, an album blending the hues of four saxophones with an experimental percussion quartet and the microtonal musical instruments of Harry Partch. The PRISM Quartet teams up with So Percussion and the Partch ensemble to explore the full spectrum of color in music, from the deepest blues to the boldest reds, oranges, and yellows. Steven Mackey’s “Blue Notes & Other Clashes” mixes colors ranging from muted to magnificent through eight short movements culminating in a prismatic fantasy, while Ken Ueno’s “Future Lilacs” explores the shifting shades of the overtone series and Stratis Minakakis’s “Skiagrafies” paints a sonic canvas with color-changing harmonies. – Maggie Molloy


Amir ElSaffar: Not Two (New Amsterdam Records)
Release Date: June 16, 2017

In a year choked with disunity in nearly every part of our lives, trumpeter Amir ElSaffar’s jazzy pan-global album Not Two offers a welcome musical melting of borders. ElSaffar draws inspiration from different cultures and their instruments, primarily Western Asia and America, and declares that they “do not exist as separate entities ‘belonging’ to any people or place.” His humanism coupled with the skill of his collaborators results in an album that pulses with mystical jazz spells, thrills with august horns, and reminds us that music is egalitarian. Knowing that Not Two was recorded in one marathon 16-hour session is just the cherry on top of ElSaffar’s accomplishment.
Rachele Hales


Los Angeles Percussion Quartet: Beyond (Sono Luminus)
Release Date: June 16, 2017

LAPQ’s Beyond pushes the boundaries of what a percussion ensemble can do, with a healthy dose of ambient-leaning music combined with a smaller measure of perhaps slightly more familiar groove-based music that might seem more typical of percussion repertoire. With works by heavy-hitting composers Daníel Bjarnason, Christopher Cerrone, Anna Thorvalsdottir, Ellen Reid, and Andrew McIntosh paired with thoughtful and delicate execution, Beyond is a tour-de-force that stands at the leading edge of music for percussion. – Seth Tompkins


Third Coast Percussion: Book of Keyboards (New Focus Recordings)
Release Date: August 4, 2017

If classical music is a volcanic island, percussion ensembles are the lava and magma that makes the new land. They’re always on the edge, pushing out, making new sounds with new instruments. And that’s exactly what Third Coast Percussion is doing on Book of Keyboards. They’ve recorded two works by modernist composer Philippe Manoury—sometimes sounding like an elaborate wooden wind chime orchestra, and at other times leaving long, worshipful tensions between notes.

Some of the instruments used on this album are familiar enough—like marimbas and vibraphones—but I’m gonna bet you’ve never heard the sixxen, because they were invented by a guy named Iannis Xenakis (also an avant-garde composer) and homemade by Third Coast. I wonder if performing on instruments that you’ve made by hand is as exciting/terrifying as flying a kit plane that you’ve built in your garage? Third Coast never lets on, moving through these two works, “Le Livre des Clavier,” and “Metal,” like seasoned pilots flying in formation. – Dacia Clay


Qasim Naqvi: FILM (Published by Erased Tapes)
Release Date: September 29, 2017

Perhaps best known as the drummer from the group of acoustic virtuosos Dawn of Midi, Qasim Naqvi also plays other instruments and composes both art music and music for television and film. The album FILM, as you might guess, falls into the latter category. Released in September of 2017, FILM contains music written for the film Tripoli Cancelled and the video installation Two Meetings and a Funeral, both by Naeem Mohaiemen. This release, like other projects by Naqvi, celebrates the legacy of Moog synthesizers. The atmospheric sounds on this album were inspired by disused architecture, and sometimes recall the music of John Carpenter. – Seth Tompkins


Bang on a Can All-Stars: More Field Recordings (Cantaloupe Music)
Release Date: October 27, 2017

Some composers can make music out of just about anything—and that’s precisely the idea behind the Bang on a Can All-Stars’ More Field Recordings. A star-studded cast of composers are each asked to find a recording of something that already exists (a voice, a sound, a faded scrap of melody) and then write a new piece around it.

A follow-up to their original 2015 release Field Recordings, this year’s rendition is a colorful patchwork of found sounds and sonic squares from the likes of Caroline Shaw, Ben Frost, Nico Muhly, Richard Reed Parry, and Glenn Kotche (to name just a few), with the All-Stars playing along to field recordings ranging from quilting interviews to Chilean birdsongs, lava fields, and snoring sleepers.
Maggie Molloy

ALBUM REVIEW: ‘More Field Recordings’ by the Bang on a Can All-Stars

by Maggie Molloy

Photo by Lisa Bauso.

Some composers can make music out of just about anything—and that’s precisely the idea behind the Bang on a Can All-Stars’ newest release.

A follow-up to their 2015 album Field Recordings, the recently released More Field Recordings features the same basic premise as the original: a star-studded cast of composers are each asked to find a recording of something that already exists—a voice, a sound, a faded scrap of melody—and then write a new piece around it. This year’s release is a two-disc album featuring new works by 13 of today’s top composers: Caroline Shaw, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Ben Frost, Nico Muhly, Richard Reed Parry, Glenn Kotche, Dan Deacon, Jace Clayton, Gabriella Smith, Paula Matthusen, Zhang Shouwang, Juan Felipe Waller, and René Lussier.

The album begins with a sonic quilt composed by Caroline Shaw. “Really Craft When You” is a chamber piece that stitches together vibrantly textured patches of chamber music with recorded interviews of quilters from North Carolina and Virginia in the 1970s. Its equal parts humorous and heartfelt, and it also serves as a beautiful metaphor for the rest of the album: a colorful patchwork of found sounds and sonic squares from over a dozen different composers.

It’s followed by the dawn chorus of Southern Chile, with Gabriella Smith’s “Panitao” weaving together field recordings of birdsongs from a small Chilean town with her own imaginary birdsongs chirped by the All-Stars. A very different type of song is at the heart of Jace Clayton’s piece “Lethe’s Children,” which explores the music of memory. He asked each of the All-Stars what the first song was that they memorized as young children—then he reimagined fragments from each in an expansive stream of sound named after the mythical river of forgetfulness.

Paula Matthusen’s “ontology of an echo” finds its music in the resonant frequencies of an Old Croton Aqueduct, while Glenn Kotche’s “Time Spirals” swirls together live music with field recordings ranging from parades and festivals to protests and dying electronic toys—all of which he collected while touring and traveling the world.

Zhang Shouwang’s “Courtyards in Central Beijing” entwines the All-Stars in a gentle musical blossom; the piece was composed in a courtyard house south of Gulou where Shouwang says “the feng shui is so strong that a flower seed can bloom in just three days.” And the first disc closes with and a transatlantic lullaby: Nico Muhly’s “Comfortable Cruising Altitude” weaves together audio from overnight airplane rides with the soothing accompaniment of the All-Stars to craft a softly shimmering serenade.

Disc two begins with quite a different type of flight: Ben Frost’s ominous and immersive “Negative Ghostrider II” is an electroacoustic translation of field recordings from an unmanned semi-autonomous drone aircraft. It’s followed by the quiet heartbeat of Richard Reed Parry’s “The Brief and Neverending Blur,” a nostalgic and nuanced chamber work based on a recording of a piano improvisation played at the speed of the composer’s own breath.

Photo by Peter Serling.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s “Fields” is similarly introspective, though more atmospheric in nature. Inspired by a twilight stroll among the lava fields of her native Iceland, the piece builds from the quiet music of her footsteps to gradually encompass the exquisite timbre and texture of the natural world around her.

Dan Deacon explores a more intergalactic soundscape in his dark-ambient drone “Sago An Ya Rev,” a transcription of a NASA Voyager recording that evolves slowly through dissonant harmonies and rumbling metallic noise. Juan Felipe Waller’s “Hybrid Ambiguities” is a bit sprightlier in nature, with the All-Stars bouncing along to the echoing flurries of a microtonal harp.

The final square of the patchwork quilt comes from René Lussier, his “Nocturnal” mirroring the humor and sincerity of the album’s opening track—but here embodied through the clever and vividly colored music he writes to accompany his sleeping sweetheart’s snores.

But whether playing along to quilting interviews or Chilean birdsongs, lava fields or snoring sleepers, the All-Stars bring personality, precision, and a pioneering creativity to every musical interpretation on the album. In the end, that’s what the series is really all about: hearing music amid the found sounds and field recordings and clamors of everyday life.